As Beast Mode Goes, So Go The Seattle Seahawks
After posting the NFL's best record and winning the league's toughest division, the Seattle Seahawks have had the opportunity to enjoy an extra week off to recharge and prepare for a Divisional Round match-up with the New Orleans Saints.
Seattle jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter when these two teams faced off in Week 13 and eventually won the game by a 34-7 score. As Pete Carroll has reiterated all week long, the Seahawks have moved on from that game and have been preparing to play a different team than the one that came to CenturyLink Field six weeks ago. Up to this point, most of the talk leading up to this game has revolved around comparisons between quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Drew Brees, and rightfuly so. Both players are Pro Bowl talents that have thrown together outstanding seasons leading their respective teams to the postseason, and nobody will forget the fact that both men stand at 6'0 tall or shorter.
Wilson and Brees will certainly play a pivotal role in deciding the final outcome of this contest, but with heavy rain and howling winds predicted in the forecast for tomorrow, more pressure will be put on players at other positions to make decisive plays to lead to victory. Throwing the football may be difficult based on weather conditions, which may cause both teams to make major adjustments to their offensive and defensive game plans.
In order to secure a spot in next weekend's NFC Championship game, the Seahawks will need to be clicking in all areas against a team that suddenly has confidence after winning the franchise's first ever road playoff game last week. Here's a look at what Seattle must do to survive to play another week:
1. "Beast Mode" Must Stand Up
Since arriving in Seattle in 2010, Marshawn Lynch has been the face of the Seahawks' offense and his legendary "Beast Quake" run against New Orleans in a stunning Wild Card upset that year made him one of the most popular running backs in the National Football League. After being labeled a bust for the Buffalo Bills early in his career, Lynch has become the driving force of Seattle's offensive system, rushing for over 1,200 yards in each of his three full seasons with the team. Pete Carroll wanted to have a physical, run-powered offense, and he's been the perfect back for this scheme.
However, Lynch simply hasn't been himself in the second half of the 2013 season, at least from a statistical standpoint. He's still running hard and trucking through plenty of defenders, but he has averaged only 64 yards rushing per game since Week 11 and hasn't reached the century mark in any of those final six games. That's easily his longest drought between 100 yard performances since becoming a Seahawk, and one of those subpar performances came in the win over New Orleans. The Saints bottled Lynch up and prevented him from ever reaching beast mode status, as he rushed for a paltry 45 yards on 16 carries.
Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had an excellent game plan in place to subdue the star back, but ultimately the Seahawks were able to counter with Wilson torching New Orleans for 310 yards through the air. Injuries have decimated the Saints defensively, especially in the secondary, but Seattle's recent offensive struggles won't get better in the playoffs unless the running game starts packing a punch again. Lynch needs to be a factor on the ground early and often to win this rematch, and Seahawk fans have to hope that an extra week off will give him a much-needed boost after he looked worn down late in the regular season.
2. Wilson Must Be "Dangeruss" Against the Blitz
Statistically, Wilson made great strides in most major categories in his second season in the league, and he's been much better against the blitz this season than he was as a rookie. When the Saints came to Seattle in early December, Ryan didn't blitz as often as accustomed, and injuries have forced him to be less reliant on the blitz as a whole. When he did choose to bring extra defenders, Wilson made him pay, as the young quarterback completed seven of eight pass attempts against the blitz for 120 yards.
Based on that performance, one would think Ryan would be hesitant to blitz much this time around. However, teams like the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams have shown in recent weeks that Wilson can be rattled by extra pressure. Not having help in the run game has made beating the blitz tougher for Wilson, but he hasn't been near as accurate as usual when opponents bring extra defenders in recent games. Arizona gave Wilson fits in Week 16, and he ended up completing only 11 of 27 passes on the afternoon. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles challenged Wilson with blitzes from each level of the defense and it ended up being a difference maker that allowed the Cardinals to overcome four Carson Palmer interceptions and still win the game.
Seattle's receivers have had issues the past three or four games getting open in single coverage, and that has forced Wilson to make throws he normally wouldn't make. The Seahawks have a strong core of receivers, but without an explosive deep threat, opponents haven't had to worry about using double coverage. That opens up more opportunities to bring an extra defender to rush the quarterback, and teams have been doing that effectively against Seattle in recent weeks. The return of Percy Harvin could provide a much-needed boost by forcing Ryan to account for his speed and explosiveness on the outside, but the coordinator may choose to be more aggressive early to see if he can rattle Wilson from the outset.
3. Front Seven Must Dominate Defensively
Everyone knows about the Legion of Boom, Seattle's much-heralded secondary led by Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor. The Seahawks boast the league's top pass defense for a reason, but not enough credit is given to the defensive line and linebacker cores. Last season, Seattle had major problems getting after opposing quarterbacks, and opponents had great success converting on third-and-long situations. Considering the talent the Seahawks have in the back half of the defense, then-coordinator Gus Bradley shouldn't have had to worry about that becoming a problem for his defense.
The Seahawks addressed the issue in a big way this offseason by signing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to bolster the pass rush, and both moves have paid major dividends. Carroll now has a defensive line with great depth and coordinator Dan Quinn appears to finally have mastered rotating these players in and out of the lineup. Except for a few games where the run defense didn't show up, Seattle's front line has done a much better job shutting down the run game this season and the improved pass rush has made passing on the Seahawks even more challenging. Sherman ended up leading the league with eight interceptions and Seattle has racked up 13 interceptions in the team's last three contests.
Thomas, Sherman, and Chancellor all made the All-Pro team for a reason. Opponents know coming to Seattle that passing the ball won't be easy, but the defensive line and linebackers will have to force Brees to unload the football early. Avril strip-sacked Brees in the first quarter in Week 13, and Bennett ended up returning the fumble for a touchdown. Those type of plays mean even more in postseason games, and Quinn will need to put the front seven in a position to not allow the run game to get rolling along with keeping consistent pressure on Brees. Like any elite quarterback, if Brees has time in the pocket, he can dissect any defense, especially considering that he has weapons like Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, and Kenny Stills at his disposal. Preventing him from being able to move to his second and third reads will be crucial to preventing New Orleans from finding a rhythm offensively.